A guide to the UK's planned in-out EU referendum

David Cameron EU flagImage copyrightGetty Images
The UK is set to have a referendum by the end of 2017 on whether or not to remain a member of the European Union.

What is happening?

The Conservatives' election manifesto promised to hold a referendum (a nationwide vote) on whether or not the UK should stay in or leave the European Union. They won the election so it's all systems go.

What is a referendum?

A referendum is basically a vote in which everyone (or nearly everyone) of voting age can take part, normally giving a "Yes" or "No" answer to a question. Whichever side gets more than half of all votes cast is considered to have won.

What is the European Union?

The European Union is an economic and political partnership involving 28 European countries. It began after World War Two to foster economic co-operation, with the idea that countries which trade together are more likely to avoid going to war with each other. It has since grown to become a "single market" allowing goods and people to move around, basically as if the member states were one country. It has its own currency, the euro, which is used by 19 of the member countries, its own parliament and it now sets rules in a wide range of areas - including on the environmenttransportconsumer rights and even things likemobile phone charges.

When will the EU referendum happen?

The one thing we know for sure is that Prime Minister David Cameron has said it will happen by the end of 2017. The most likely times of the year for referendums are generally May or September, and some people - including, it is said, the prime minister himself - think it should be held as soon as possible. There had been suggestions that it could be held in May 2016, to coincide with elections in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London, rather than waiting for 2017 -but the government has ruled that out. Here is a full rundown of the likely dates and key events.

Why not just hold the referendum now?

When David Cameron announced in January 2013 his pledge to hold a referendum, a key element was that he would seek to make changes to the way the European Union works - or at least the rules covering the UK as a European Union member. Only once this renegotiation of British membership had been completed would he put the new arrangement to the public vote.

What about political opposition to a referendum?

During the election the Lib Dems and Labour both said they did not want a referendum unless there were plans to transfer more powers from the UK to the EU. Labour has since dropped its opposition, so the Conservatives are expected to get their Referendum Bill passed easily. The House of Lords could delay it, but as the referendum was promised in the Conservative election manifesto (a manifesto is a document setting out what a party would do if they won the election) it is not likely to reject the bill once MPs back it.

What will the referendum question be?

The question is always crucial in any referendum. The 2013 suggestion from the Conservatives was: "Do you think that the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union. Yes or no". Some people thought this phrasing leaned too far towards the status quo - the current state of affairs - and the Electoral Commission, which has to approve the question, said it was not clear enough and proposed: "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?" The final decision will be made by MPs but Downing Street has accepted the amended wording.
Read more: Does the wording of a referendum question matter?

Who will be able to vote?

British, Irish and Commonwealth citizens over 18 who are resident in the UK, along with UK nationals who have lived overseas for less than 15 years. Members of the House of Lords and Commonwealth citizens in Gibraltar will also be eligible, unlike in a general election. Citizens from EU countries - apart from Ireland, Malta and Cyprus - will not get a vote.

What reforms is David Cameron hoping to make?

Mr Cameron has not revealed the full details but on Tuesday published a letter setting out four main aims:
  • Integration: Allowing Britain to opt out from the EU's founding ambition to forge an "ever closer union" of the peoples of Europe so it will not be drawn into further political integration
  • Benefits: Restricting access to in-work and out-of-work benefits to EU migrants. Specifically, ministers want to stop those coming to the UK from claiming certain benefits and housing until they have been resident for four years. But the European Commission, which runs the EU, has said such a move would be "highly problematic". Ministers have reportedly been warned by the UK's top civil servant this could be discriminatory and any limits may be reduced to less than a year
  • Sovereignty: Giving greater powers to national parliaments to block EU legislation. The UK supports a "red card" system allowing member states to scrap, as well as veto, unwanted directives. But this may only be triggered by states acting together, not the UK acting alone
  • Eurozone v the rest: Securing an explicit recognition that the euro is not the only currency of the European Union, to ensure countries outside the eurozone are not materially disadvantaged. The UK wants safeguards that steps to further financial union cannot be imposed on non-eurozone members and the UK will not have to contribute to eurozone bailouts
Read more: Q&A: What Britain wants from Europe

Why is a referendum being held?

Britain had a referendum in 1975 shortly after it had joined the EU, or the Common Market as it was then called. The country voted to stay in then but there have been growing calls, from the public and politicians, for another vote because, they argue, the EU has changed a lot over the past 40 years, with many more countries joining and the organisation extending its control over more aspects of daily lives. David Cameron initially resisted these calls but in 2013 he changed his mind.

Who wants the UK to leave the EU?

About 40% of the British public, according to the latest opinion polls. The UK Independence Party, which won the last European elections, and received nearly four million votes - 13% of those cast - in May's general election, campaigns for Britain's exit from the EU. A fair number of Conservative MPs - and several Labour ones - are also in favour of leaving. There are two main campaign groups. Read more about them.

Why do they want the UK to leave?

They believe Britain is being held back by the EU, which they say imposes too many rules on business and charges billions of pounds a year in membership fees for little in return. They also want Britain to take back full control of its borders and reduce the number of people coming here to work. One of the main principles of EU membership is "free movement", which means you don't need to get a visa to go and live in another EU country. They also object to the idea of "ever closer union" and the belief that the ultimate goal is to create a "United States of Europe".

Who wants the UK to stay in the EU?

David Cameron wants Britain to stay in the EU, once he has got some powers back from it. He has so far refused to say whether he would start calling for Britain to leave if he does not get what he wants from the other EU leaders. The Labour Party, SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Lib Dems are also in favour of staying in. The latest YouGov opinion poll suggests 38% of the British public agree with them.

Why do they want the UK to stay?

They believe Britain gets a big boost from EU membership - it makes selling things to other EU countries easier and, they argue, the flow of immigrants, most of whom are young and keen to work, fuels economic growth and helps pay for public services. They also believe Britain's status in the world would be damaged by leaving.

So would Britain be better in or out?

It depends which way you look at it - or what you believe is important. Leaving the EU would be a big step - arguably far more important than who wins the next general election - but would it set the nation free or condemn it to economic ruin?Here is a rundown of the arguments for and against.

What about businesses?

Big business - with a few exceptions - tends to be in favour of Britain staying in the EU because it makes it easier for them to move money, people and products around the world. BT chairman Sir Mike Rake, who until earlier this year was CBI president, says there are "no credible alternatives" to staying in the EU. But others disagree, such as Lord Bamford, chairman of JCB, who says an EU exit would allow the UK to negotiate trade deals as our country "rather than being one of 28 nations". Many small- and medium-sized firms would welcome a cut in red tape and what they see as petty regulations, but a lot hangs on what deal Mr Cameron renegotiates. The British Chambers of Commerce says 55% of members back staying in a reformed EU.
Find out more:
Business for Britain wants big changes to the UK's relations with the EU and says the UK should be prepared to vote to leave if the changes are not achieved
Business for New Europe is a coalition of business leaders who support the UK's membership of the EU and "oppose withdrawal to the margins".

What are the rules likely to be for campaigning?

The Electoral Commission will be in charge of making sure it's a fair contest. It will select a designated lead campaign for both the "leave" and "remain" sides. The official campaigns will get access to public funds, higher spending limits, campaign broadcasts, free mailshots and free access to meeting rooms. Other groups and political parties are free to run their own campaigns but they will be limited to spending less than £10,000. The Electoral Commission has published a guide to the rules.

So who is going to be leading the rival sides in the campaign?

This has yet to be decided - but here are the groups that are making the early running:
Britain Stronger in Europe - the main cross-party group campaigning for Britain to remain in the EU, headed by former Marks and Spencer chairman Lord Rose.
Vote Leave campaign - A cross-party campaign that grew out of Business for Britain, headed by former Conservative adviser Dominic Cummings and Matthew Elliott, who ran the successful No2AV campaign
Leave.EU - Funded by UKIP donor Arron Banks and other business people, with the backing of longstanding Eurosceptic groups - it is vying for official designation with Vote Leave.
There are a string of other organisations campaigning either for or against EU membership, as well as groups of MPs. UKIP leader Nigel Farage is Q&A: UK's planned EU referendumcertain to play a prominent role in the leave campaign, regardless of which leave campaign gets the official designation. David Cameron has vowed to campaign for Britain to remain in the EU "with all my heart and soul" if he gets what he wants from his renegotiation with the other member states. Former Home Secretary Alan Johnson is leading Labour's own campaign to stay in the EU but has said he will not share a platform with David Cameron.
Referendum on the UK's future in the European Union

Flags in Smith SquareImage copyrightReuters
The UK is to have a referendum by the end of 2017 on whether to remain a member of the European Union or to leave. The vote is being proceeded by a process of negotiations in which the Conservative government is seeking to secure a new deal for the UK.
. . . Courtesy ::: BBC
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